Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Grazie Mille! #1 - Eggplant

One of the perks of writing a column like this is you make friends. 

They're always really nice.  Everybody's like, "Way to go, Connie!"  "Can't wait to try the pasta fazool, Connie!"  And they NEVER say stuff like, "What a freakin' waste of time, Connie!  You suck."  And if somebody did, I am mistress of my own online universe and I can send the cafone into Internet oblivion with two clicks of the mouse.  Now THAT would be a super-power worth having in real life.  Think of it:

"I'm sorry, but I think I was here first."

"Oh, were you?"  *click*  *click*  <delete>  "My bad!"

I could be called "The Blogger" and I want the cartoonist to draw me to look like Scarlett Johansson on a bender.

Once, on my other blog, somebody actually did tell me that I sucked.  He had a point.  Not that the material sucked, but he felt that I was misrepresenting myself.  Very perceptive.  The circumstances of my life had changed and I was moving on to new adventures, but I was still writing the old stuff.  That was when I realized it was time to leave the party.  Time to re-invent myself as Connie Staccato, Knower of All Things Worth Knowing.  The name has been changed to protect the innocent, but I really am (at the moment) a Sicilian-American housewife with a slight mustache.  No misrepresentation. 
I wish.

So let me tell you about my friend, Valeria.  Valeria is a real bona fide Italian lady, who really bona fide lives in Italy, no hyphen-American nothing.  She's young, she's beautiful, she's nice.  And she can cook.  Valeria - honey - your husband leaves you, you come see me.  I'll fix you up.  You are every American man's dream.

This is Valeria's eggplant recipe, which she sent to me after I confessed to her that there is no food I would rather eat.  She sent me two recipes:  the first one is "light" and the second one she describes as "tastier and with more calories".

Do you see why I love her?

Valeria's Eggplant (Recipe 1)
Cut eggplants in slices 1 cm high.  Put the slices onto oven plates (rectangular) after covering the plates with anti-adhering paper.  Sprinkle with salt and pour olive oil over the slices (the slices must not be one over the other).  Sprinkle with grated bread (pangrattato, you might want to Google to see what it looks like).  Put into pre-heated oven at 200 degrees Celsius (author's notethat's about 400 degrees Fahrenheit, don't set yourself on fire) for 20 minutes.  The quality of the eggplants and of the olive oil is paramount :-)

Valeria's Eggplant (Recipe 2)
Cut eggplants in slices 0.5 cm high.  If you have the patience, grill them slightly, after pouring some salt on them.  Prepare tomato sauce with tomatoes, onion, fresh basil, olive oil (another author's note:  see previous post here on how to make sauce).  Cut mozzarella or provola dolce into thin slices.  Get ham (prosciutto cotto) cut into super thin slices.  Now make at least two layers of eggplants, ham, tomato sauce, mozzarella and put into preheated oven for 40 minutes at 200 degrees Celsius (if you're a slow learner, review author's note in the first recipe).  If you manage to get some Parmesan cheese too, sprinkle some between the layers.

BTW, Valeria is a fashion blogger, so go get a gander.  She not only offers advice on how not to look like yesterday's news, but she gives personal fashion consultations.  Like, for free.  Just because she's a nice person.

For instance, I went out last weekend.  OUT-out, the kind of "out" where cocktail attire is "recommended".  Since I haven't even worn high heels since the last time somebody died, I could have left a comment on Valeria's blog saying, "Hey, Valeria!  What should a saggy old bat like me wear to an after-5 wedding/cocktail party in April when it should be warm and sunny, but it's really 40 degrees and rainy because I'm in Chicago?"  And she would come up with the perfect outfit.  I could have done that, but I didn't because I only have one after-5 outfit (which sort of means I should go shopping).  But she did help me decide what to pack when I went to Spain last October.  And I thank her for persuading me that gym shoes are "a thing".

Now, go make eggplant and get your Euro-glam on.  Connie says.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Chicken Vesuvio a la Possible Mob Connections

My cousin Vita once asked me if I'd seen Mob Wives.

Where?  Like at my house?  At a wedding?

The short answer is, "I'm sure."  But that wasn't what Vita was referring to.  She was referring to the "reality" TV show.  And no, I haven't seen it, because it's not about Mob Wives.  I may be stating the obvious here, but if these women were - in "reality" - mob wives, they wouldn't be flapping their jaws on TV, am I right?  Still, it's a sure money-maker, since many Americans are fascinated by The Mob.

It's called "The Outfit" in Chicago.  Just so you know.

I'm not quite so fascinated, since I've had enough "reality" on that subject to make it a little less than charming.  Vita assures me that the TV show is hilarious, though, and she may be right.  Any show starring a person named "Big Ang" might be worth at least one viewing.  And I'm sorry to hear that Big Ang is sick.  Hey!  Angie, sweetheart!  I hope you get better soon and I'm going to post a good soup recipe, just for you.

But not today.  Today we're doing Chicken Vesuvio.

Let's start with some interesting facts about Chicken Vesuvio:
  1. This dish is, in fact, not Italian, but Italian-American;
  2. It originated in Chicago;
  3. In the 1930s, according to Wikipedia;
  4. The "Vesuvio" comes from the idea that the dish should be served with the potato wedges formed into the shape of a volcano, though I have never seen it served like this and can't imagine why anybody would bother;
  5. There are no peas in Chicken Vesuvio.  No, there aren't.  Don't start with me.
This recipe comes to me from my father-in-law who, once upon a time, owned a well-known Italian restaurant in Chicago.  Dad was a colorful person. By colorful, I mean involved with some pretty shady characters.  In his youth, he worked for Al Capone - dog races and a little booze running.  One day he went legit by becoming a photographer for a newspaper and was one of the first on the scene of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, after having been tipped off by one of his former co-workers.

Eventually, Dad opened his restaurant and the Chicken Vesuvio became legendary.  I'm going to give you two recipes.  This first one was published in the New York Times, and I'm printing it here verbatim.

Chicken Vesuvio
Two fryers, about 2 1/2 lbs. each, cut up
5 large potatoes, peeled and quartered 
5 cloves of garlic, minced
1/4 cup parsley, finely chopped
1/4 cup oregano
1 1/2 cup clear canned chicken broth
1 cup olive oil

Cover bottom of large roasting pan with about 1" of oil and preheat.  Fry chicken and potatoes on top of stove for 20 minutes.  Place in oven and bake at 375 degrees for another 20 minutes.  Pour off most of oil, add chicken broth, sprinkle parsley, garlic, oregano, salt and pepper over chicken and potatoes.  Cover and return to oven.  Bake at 325 degrees till tender.  Served with chilled white Orvieto wine.  Serves 4.

Now, here's a revised version, for real life, not a restaurant.  I mean, who's got room on top of their kitchen stove to fry two whole cut-up chickens and five potatoes?  And what the hell is Orvieto wine?

Connie Staccato's Chicken Vesuvio
A couple of packages of chicken legs and thighs
3 large potatoes, peeled and cut into 8 pieces each, lengthwise (in case you want to build a volcano)
A half a head of fresh garlic, peeled and minced
1/4 cup of chopped parsley (Italian flat-leaf, it's better)
1/4 dried oregano
Lots of olive oil
Salt and pepper
(Forget the chicken broth.  Let the chicken make its own broth.  And "pour off most of oil"?  Are you kidding me??)

Turn your oven on to 375 degrees.  Generously coat the bottom of a large roasting pan with oil, and heat it in the oven for a few minutes.  Don't forget about it, or you got problems.  (I line my pan with foil first, a step you will thank me for when you go to wash the dishes.)  Put the chicken and potatoes in the pan and drizzle with olive oil.  Take your CLEAN, BARE hands and rub the oil over the chicken and potatoes.  Now, wash your hands REAL GOOD with soap and hot water or you're going to get food poisoning.  Drizzle with more olive oil.  Sprinkle all the other ingredients on top and put the pan in the oven.  Cook until brown and crispy - about an hour-and-a-half, depending on the potatoes.

This makes good party food, served with a baked mostaciolli, a salad, and some good bread.

And to make it really authentic, hire a waiter named "Paulie".

Saturday, April 11, 2015


I used to hate asparagus, just on principle.  I think it was the color and texture, because I had the same issues with lentils, which I'm still not wild about.  Asparagus was sort of a weird shade of green and a little on the slimy side, and it wasn't until I was a mature and responsible adult that I learned to appreciate the wonders of an asparagus frocia.

(Pronounced:  FRO-dja.)

I had a hell of a time figuring out how to spell this word.  Many American-Sicilian words are only dimly related to the Italian, and the pronunciation has had over a hundred years of isolation to get mangled.  I didn't even know it EXISTED until I used the word "frittata" (Italian, not Sicilian, thanks to my napoletan husband) in front of my cousin, Vita (Sicilian, not Italian).

Vita remembers her Aunt Mary Rose's kitchen.  I remember my grandmother's kitchen, too, but there was a difference.  Aunt Mary Rose spoke Sicilian in her kitchen.  My grandparents only spoke Sicilian in their kitchen when:
  1. They were on the phone (which was on the wall in the kitchen, and was yellow to match the decor) with other Sicilians;
  2. They were discussing delicate matters, unsuitable for the ears of the kids in the room.  These matters usually involved (I think) unwanted pregnancies, the incarceration of a family member, or an issue related to the guns we kept behind the wall in the attic;
  3. My grandparents were using profanity.  Sometimes at each other, and then my grandmother would yell, "The windows are open!" which quieted things down because heaven forbid the non-Sicilian neighbors should think we were barbarians, not that they had the slightest possibility of understanding anything we were yelling about.
(For the record, Sicilian profanity is not the same as American profanity.  American profanity uses specific words, inherited from Anglo-Saxon ancestors.  Sicilian profanity uses colorful and occasionally obscene references to God and the Blessed Virgin.  It's much worse.)

At any rate, Vita corrected me and I found the word on the Internet.  A frocia is basically a Sicilian omelette.  The big difference between an omelette and a frocia is that Sicilians cook the living daylights out of the thing.  So they're not fluffy and yellow as much as crunchy and brown.  In my grandparent's house, frocie came in three varieties:  with potatoes, with peppers, or with asparagus.

Since it's springtime and asparagus is in season, and it was $1.25 at Mariano's last week, I'm going to give you the recipe for the asparagus frocia.  My grandmother called it "the asparagus-and-eggs", because she couldn't think of anything else to call it in English (she also called lasagna "the baked spaghetti", go figure).

Asparagus Frocia
Buy a bundle of fresh asparagus.  They should be a little on the thin side, because they'll cook easier than the thick asparagus.  Turn on your oven to 350 degrees.  Wash the asparagus and break off the ends.  My grandmother used to peel it. Lord knows why, so don't.  Take a BIG cast iron (this is important!) frying pan and heat up about 4 to 6 tablespoons of olive oil, over medium heat.  Dry off the asparagus (or it will splatter all over the place) and put it in the pan.  Fry the asparagus (you want to move it around a lot with your spoon or spatula) until it's browned and soft.  Put some salt and pepper on it.  Now, crack 6 eggs over the asparagus (anywhere, make a sign of the cross or something), break the yolks, and let it all cook over medium heat until the bottom is set and a little brown.  Now pick up your cast iron pan (if you didn't use cast iron, don't do this!) and put it in the oven until the top of the frocia doesn't wiggle any more.

You can use the EXACT recipe with potatoes or peppers instead of the asparagus.  Frocia is good hot, for supper, or cold, for lunch or snacks.  If you eat it cold, you can put it on some Italian bread for a sandwich.

If you want to lose a million zillion pounds, eat a lot of frocia.  Trust me.

Monday, April 6, 2015

We Live and Learn

Here's how my Easter went for me this year:
  1. The strata:  two loaves of bread barely covered it.  Next year, I'm going to buy three loaves of bread.  I'll give what's left over to the birds.  (I've already changed the shopping list, so if you had the same experience and went back to check the list, no, you're not crazy.  Well, maybe you are, but this isn't one of the symptoms);
  2. The potatoes could have cooked longer.  The package directions on the ham said to put it in at 300 degrees, which I did.  What the package directions didn't know was that the ham had to share the oven with the potatoes, and potatoes take a LONG time to cook at 300 degrees.  Next year, I'm going to put the potatoes in an hour earlier than the ham;
  3. The biggest problem is always the oven logistics.  I have an oven and a microwave.  I hate cooking anything in the microwave, so it's always a challenge to coordinate cooking times for all the stuff that has to go in the oven.  When I moved into my husband Anthony's apartment as his bride, we had an oven with another little oven over it.  That was great.  It could be the reason why I married him;
  4. It took freaking FOREVER to whip the cream.  Like 45 minutes.  Maybe because I was using fancy organic heavy whipping cream, which - truthfully - didn't look all that heavy to me.  I'm not saying it wasn't worth it, I'm just saying that today my wrist hurts;
  5. The stab wound produced no bloodshed, and therefore did not require stitches.
For once, I didn't do it to myself.  I'm a great one for self-injury doing normal, everyday activities that everyone else has no problem with.  I fall down a lot.  I don't wear high heels unless somebody else is driving me door-to-door.  I once pulled a ligament in my ribcage putting on my tights.  You might think I'm kidding when I say that I don't drink while I cook.  I do, sometimes.  A little.  But I'm very careful to wait until I'm done working with sharp objects.  What I hadn't considered, up until yesterday, was that I should probably wait until everybody is done working with sharp objects because I may need to defend myself.

Here's what happened:  Dinner was ready, all our guests were sitting down at the table in the dining room.  Anthony was in the kitchen, with his back to me.  I'm walking through the kitchen, to join our guests, when - suddenly - Anthony turns around and wham!  I get a butcher knife in the thigh.  (I told you before that this man was passive/aggressive.  Well, apparently, he's graduated.)

There was a collective gasp from the dining room.  "Are you all right?" asked Anthony, for once looking worried about something besides the temperature of his soup.  Well, not ever having been stabbed before, I couldn't tell.  "Oh, yeah, fine," I answered, and then thought better of it.  I have a high threshold of pain.

"Are you sure?" Anthony asked again, showing the depth of his concern.

"Uh...maybe.  I'll be back in a minute."  I rushed into the bathroom to check for blood.  And to make sure my skirt was all right.  No punctures.  The skirt would live to see another Easter.  Lucky for Anthony - a good skirt is hard to come by.

Back to the food.  No meal is ever perfect, and every time you cook you're going to learn a little something, and maybe make a little tweak.  That's how recipes evolve and how they eventually become your own.

It's like your kid's piano recital, you know?  The kid notices the mistakes; YOU notice the mistakes, but nobody else does.  Really.  Trust me.

Cooking, math, geography.  People think these things are magic.  If you demonstrate the smallest ability in any of them, you're a genius.

Even if the potatoes are a little undercooked.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Just a Thought

If you're making the fruit salad with the maraschino cherries, SAVE the juice from the jars and pour it over the ham while it's roasting.  If you're making the ham.

You'll get a nice, sweet flavor to the rind (is that what you call the outside of a ham?).  AND it will keep you from chugging the juice straight from the jar.  Which, when nobody's looking, is what I do.

Hell, you can do the same thing with the pineapple juice, too.  Cherries and pineapples are a great combo, and I remember my grandmother laboriously pinning pineapple slices, with maraschino cherries in the middle, on the Easter ham with toothpicks.  Like a mosaic, only with spikes.  I'm too lazy for that.  I'm doing the juice.  It was pretty, though.

Just a thought.  Off to make the strata.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Cooking for a Holiday - Easter, Part V - Roll Up Your Sleeves...

Today, Holy Thursday, I'm getting busy.

Not real busy, just a little busy.  And this is the whole secret to cooking for a holiday.  Trust me.
By now, if you've been listening, you have:
  1. Checked in with your guests;
  2. Composed your menu;
  3. Compiled your shopping list;
  4. Shopped for the non-perishables;
  5. Had at least two glasses of wine.  In addition to your usual intake.
It may seem a little weird to start cooking on Thursday for a dinner on Sunday.  It's not.   I start my Thanksgiving cooking a month in advance, which you will find out soon enough.   Doing stuff ahead of time is what keeps your stress levels down, come the holiday.   So you can actually enjoy yourself.  The less cooking you do on the holiday, the more time you have for cocktails.  (Friends don't let friends drink and fry.)

So today I'm going to boil some eggs.  And then put them in the fridge to be colored tomorrow.  And I will go to sleep tonight a happy woman, because I know my Easter dinner is right on track.
For those of you who don't know how to boil eggs:

Hard-Boiled Eggs
Put some eggs, in a single layer and gently, into a big pot.  Cover them with cold water.  Put them on the stove, uncovered, over MEDIUM heat.  Keep an eye on the eggs.  When they start to boil rapidly (and this takes some time over medium heat), turn off the heat.  Then set your timer - or watch your clock - for 13 minutes.  (Personally, I use a timer or I'll forget.  Hey, I'm busy.)  When the time is up, put the eggs in ice water.  They'll peel easier this way. When the eggs are cool, they're done.  Some of them might crack.  So what.

Now, here's my schedule for the next few days:

Holy Thursday:  Boil eggs for dyeing.
Good Friday:  Color eggs, make my daughter's (Nikki, Age: almost 30) Easter basket, clean.
Holy Saturday:  Make the Egg & Cheese Strata (cover in foil, put in fridge overnight), do my nails.
Easter Sunday:  Everything else.

You might feel like a schedule isn't necessary, like you got this, and it can all wait for Sunday while you use the precious few moments God has allotted to you on this planet to play Spider Solitaire.  It's a temptation, I know.  But a little discipline now will save you an exponential amount of grief come Easter morning.  You gotta have a little discipline, it keeps you out of trouble.  If you're still alive, you know that by now.

Well, Happy Easter and good luck!  Wear something nice.  Just because you don't go to church doesn't mean you shouldn't dress up.  And let me know how it goes.


Connie Staccato
Mistress of Discipline

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Stop the Presses!

This just in (well, actually, last weekend but I'm just getting around to it now), from my brother-in-law, Stefano's, wife Jillian:

Tomato Sauce
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  With a small, sharp knife, cut the stems out of a bunch of plum tomatoes.  Slice them in half and put them in a big baking pan, skin side up.  Drizzle them with olive oil.  I sprinkled them with kosher salt and fresh ground pepper (Jillian didn't, still good though).  Roast the tomatoes in the oven for 40 minutes.  Then turn the oven up to 400 degrees and roast them for another 20 minutes.  Turn the oven off and leave them in for another 10 minutes.

That's it!  Now toss these beauties with the pasta of your choice, and feast like a Medici.  The tomatoes caramelize and sweeten up.  Add more oil and salt, if you want, and/or a little fresh basil.  I scooped the seeds out of the tomato halves because I still have four gaping holes where that oobahtz of an oral surgeon took out my wisdom teeth a few weeks ago.  I continue to suffer.

Seriously, at what point were they going to tell me that I wouldn't be able to eat normal food for six months?  I would have made myself more mentally ready for this, like by entering a convent where they make cookies.  I can't eat stuff with seeds or nuts.  Nothing crunchy.  Nothing that would get stuck in the holes where my teeth used to be.  Well, that covers just about everything, Dr. Jidrool, what do you eat?

There should be special procedures, designed only for Italians.  I see this as the future of health care, where you're treated according to your ethnicity.  Maybe they'd learn something.  There's a reason why the old Italians lived to be 90 or more, and the only things they ate were toast and chocolate, washed down with wine and coffee. 

Discrimination in health care.  My neighbor Ruthie just had a brush with that.  She's not Italian, but often eats like a paisan.

"So I go for my check-up the other day.  And the doctor is worried about my drinking."

"Your drinking?"  I can think of a few reasons to worry about Ruthie, but drinking isn't one of them.

"Yeah, when I told her how many drinks I usually had a week.  I even low-balled it."

"What did you tell her?"

"Seven to 14.  I left out my 'date-night' cocktails."

"Seven to 14?  That's too many?  What if you were Italian and had wine with dinner every night?"

You see my point?  American doctors, the silly bastards, would have the whole island of Sicily in rehab.

Back to the tomatoes.  You could also just eat them as is, as a side dish, or put them on little toasted slices of Italian bread and make bruschetta.

BTW, that word is pronounced broo-SKET.  Here's a few more:

ree-GOAT = ricotta

mahr-i-NAHR = marinara

Now you sound like you know what you're talking about.